‘Friend when needed, foe when appropriate’: Congress remembers Alcee Hastings

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By Jim Saksa
Posted April 21, 2021 at 4:07pm

During his more than four decades in public service, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings participated in five impeachments. He voted for both of Donald Trump’s impeachments, and before that, for a federal judge’s and against Bill Clinton’s. But in his first, he didn’t get to vote at all. 

It was his own.

Hastings, who died this month at the age of 84 after a fight with pancreatic cancer, was a man of many firsts. He was Florida’s first Black federal judge — and the first one impeached — and then one of the state’s first Black representatives in Congress since Reconstruction.  

At a memorial service held Wednesday morning at the Capitol, nine former and current members spoke, but only House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer hinted at Hastings’ complicated legacy, which led his hometown paper to compare him to a phoenix rising from the ashes. 

“He could have been very angry about what had happened to him. It could have defeated him. It could have made him feel sorry for himself. His greatness is that he didn’t let a defeat, defeat him,” Hoyer said.

Hastings became a federal judge in 1979, after making a name for himself as a civil rights advocate and a short stint on the state bench. His lifetime appointment to the judiciary was cut short in 1989, when Congress impeached him over bribery charges stemming from a mob trial over which he presided. Hastings had actually won the criminal case against him in 1983 and was acquitted of all charges. But that didn’t stop the Democrat-controlled House from impeaching him six years later on a 413-3 vote, and then a panel of the Senate voting to convict him and remove him from the judiciary — but not bar him from running for political office.

His last financial disclosure forms showed he still owed his lawyers millions, including between $500,000 and $1 million to Patricia Williams, who became his girlfriend, then his legal client during her disbarment proceedings, then his staffer, and then third wife.

Despite those bad optics, and news that the Treasury Department paid $220,000 in 2014 to settle a sexual harassment claim by another former staffer against him, Hastings never faced a serious challenge after first getting elected to Congress in 1992 — just three years after the same chamber impeached him.

That 1992 campaign was his ninth attempt to win elected office, and the first successful one. But it wasn’t easy. In the primary, Hastings faced Rep. Lois Frankel, then a state House member, among a five-candidate field. Frankel finished first in the first round, winning 35 percent to Hastings’ 28 percent. The two went on to a runoff, which turned nasty, with each candidate viciously attacking the other.

Frankel, who won a neighboring congressional seat in 2012, had only kind words to say on Wednesday about her former adversary turned colleague and friend.

“We have a very interesting history,” she said shortly before the memorial service in Statuary Hall. “It should be an example to people who have been adversaries in the past. We ended up having a real genuine friendship. He mentored me when I first started [in Congress]. He was really an incredible leader for our delegation.”

Hastings went on to a 28-year career in the House, becoming dean of the Florida delegation in 2019. Along the way, he co-chaired the state delegation, rose up his party’s ranks and became a go-to.

At Wednesday’s memoriam, Hastings’ colleagues praised his intellect and rapier wit, which was often deployed in heated debates in committees or on the floor.

“You never had to guess what Alcee thought or believed,” said Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio. “He made it clear — whether you liked it or not.”

“He did it by telling the nation how he felt, even how he felt about the state of Texas,” Beatty added, alluding to a 2015 Rules Committee hearing where Hastings refused to back down after calling the state “crazy.”

After Texas Republican Michael C. Burgess said he would “await the gentleman’s apology” for the comment, Hastings retorted, “You will wait until hell freezes over for me to say anything in an apology.”

Still, GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, who co-chaired the Florida delegation with Hastings for eight years, spoke fondly of Hastings.

“Needless to say, Alcee had many friends from my side of the aisle, because Alcee could disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

Hastings’ fellow Floridian Rep. John Rutherford was also in the audience, but otherwise few Republicans attended the event, which was capped as a COVID-19 safety measure. Current and former members of the Congressional Black Caucus made up a majority of the 71 guests and speakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and senior adviser to the president Cedric Richmond.   

South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn’s voice broke as he spoke about his departed friend.

“I should never forget his last call to me. Although he never uttered the word, I heard him saying goodbye,” said Clyburn. “That was the Alcee Hastings we will miss — the consoler and counselor; the friend when needed, the foe when appropriate; the congressperson’s congressman.”

“Rest in power, my dear friend, rest in power.”